Donaghadee 14-17 Enniskillen (Quarter Final Towns Cup)
The biggest crowd of the season stood in welcome winter sunshine as they waited for this Provincial Towns’ Cup quarter-final to start; Donaghadee Rugby Club welcoming visitors Enniskillen. The weather may have been cheering after the week’s snow, but it had left the playing surface just a little slippery. When Paul Blewitt kicked off Donaghadee went straight into attack mode. Enniskillen managed to hold the Donaghadee forwards and put in a long relieving kick. This went straight to full-back Billy Allen who instantly called his left-winger Rory Garnham to come around behind him as he started right. After Allen’s long run came Garnham’s. He invaded the Enniskillen half and gave to Andrew Findlater, who was finally forced into touch on the “22”.
At the resulting line-out Richard Millar soared into the clouds to claim clean possession. In a flash his fellow-forwards were around him surging for the opposition line. For many it seemed that Davy Thompson had scored after battering his way through many tackles, but crucially the referee decided that he was just short. So, no try, but sustained Donaghadee pressure eventually was to give Millar two chances to gain some points. His first penalty kick was difficult and slid wide, but seconds later he converted the second for Donaghadee to take a well-deserved, but small, lead of three points. The home side did not get long to savour this however, because minutes later Enniskillen drew level with a well-struck penalty.
After a short period of end-to-end stuff Donaghadee decided to execute a training-field move in midfield, but their normally sweet timing went slightly awry. A seemingly invisible Skins player had got in amongst the Dee men and the ball was somehow in his hands. After a split second when all concerned, including the interloper, realised what had happened it was a mass gallop to the Dee posts. Such reversals are deadly in ball games. What with every Dee player in attack mode their defence was scattered. The try at the posts and easy kick meant that Enniskillen were suddenly now 10-3 in front.
Their large contingent of supporters must have been hoping that this was now the game reversed, and that they could hold tight and perhaps increase the margin. The beauty of sports of course is that there is no script. Moments after the Enniskillen try, Donaghadee’s forwards won good possession inside their own half. Scrum-half Jonny Phillips fired a huge pass to a wide Blewitt and he repeated the skill with a long ball to Allen coming into the line. The full-back sprinted as far as he could and then with perfect timing he fed Garnham on the wing. This rapidly improving young man pinned his ears back knowing that it was now up to him. Every Enniskillen player, most of the Donaghadee players and the referee gave a good imitation of a posse in a western as they chased Garnham. But he was not to be caught. He was half-tackled a few metres short, but the still-slippery pitch surface allowed his momentum to carry him to the goal-line for a thrilling score. Millar missed the difficult kick, but Donaghadee were now right back in the game and only 10-8 behind.
Minutes later, as the half was drawing to its close, the Donaghadee supporters had another bit of excitement when Allen fielded a kick on his “22” at pace. He threaded a secret path through the hounding broken-field Enniskillen chasers and just over half-way put in a fifty metre kick. Once again Donaldson Park was treated to a mass chase. As the rolling ball reached the Enniskillen line Allen dived on it sliding over the line with it. The home supporters went mad with delight - for about five seconds. The trailing referee had not been able to see the actual touch-down and was obliged to deny the try. Enniskillen were both relieved and then delighted to be given a twenty-two drop-out rather than ship a try. Perhaps rightly, given the circumstances, the half petered out with what was really a whimper rather than the bang that it had looked for a few seconds.
With Donaghadee starting the second half 10-8 down rather than the 15-10 up they had imagined, it was clear that the remaining 40 minutes would be tight. Play pulsated up and down the field with some excellent tackles being put in by both teams. If there was a difference in style it was probably in the Donaghadee desire to play attractive rugby and win this cup-tie well, whereas Enniskillen were determined to continue spoiling and grafting and to win ugly if necessary. They seemed to have grasped the truth that this really was a Towns’ Cup quarter-final where Donaghadee, buoyed up by the brilliance of some sensational display games in recent weeks seemed more intent on winning with entertaining rugby football.
The second period was still young as Millar delighted the home supporters with a wide-out penalty to edge Donaghadee into the lead at 11-10. From the restart Donaghadee mounted a well-formed attack that eventually fetched the ball out to Millar on Garnham’s wing. Hounded by tacklers, he kicked ahead to the corner where Enniskillen were glad to get the ball into touch.
Minutes later Donaghadee mounted the best mass attack of the game. After an advantage signal for an offence near the left touchline by an Enniskillen player, Donaghadee involved at least seven pairs of hands as they advanced at pace towards the Skins’ posts. When the ball went to ground right in the goal mouth and an Enniskillen player knocked it on, the referee chose to take play back to the site of the original offence at the touchline. Not a great reward for such skilful play. The Dee men stuck to their task and, although denied the try that had seemed so close, they did receive some recompense when they gained another penalty which Millar was glad to convert for 14-10.
As the minutes counted down Donaghadee chose to keep playing their usual attacking game, although some thought too often trying to run their way out of trouble instead of resorting to the old tried-and-true policy of “If in doubt, kick it out.” Shortly after Paul Hamilton came on for Gareth Gordon, and as spectators and referee were looking at their watches, this spirit of adventure (or was it the tension of the occasion?) eventually led to Donaghadee’s downfall. Spurning yet another big kick to touch, Donaghadee ran, and into trouble. The best advance they could gain was to go into touch on their “22”.
The Fermanagh men could see on the scoreboard that the end of the game was close. They also well knew what to do in such circumstances. Simple, but clean possession at the line-out, well-timed ball to the scrum-half and a run to the right side open field was the call. Donaghadee drifted their defence as the ball was shifted, but somehow Enniskillen seemed to have too many men – and the last of these was able to crash over Donaghadee’s line for a sudden reversal from 14-10 to 14-15. When the conversion emphasised this to 14-17 Donaghadee rushed to restart, but the sound of the final whistle struck them to the heart. This was as good an example of defeat wrenched from the jaws of victory as one is likely to meet.
So it was congratulations to Enniskillen and best wishes for their semi-final, but for Donaghadee a huge disappointment. Training nights in Donaghadee this week will no doubt be emphasising the lessons learned last Saturday. The Quarter-Final of the Junior Cup at Fivemiletown on Saturday (27 Feb) against Clogher Valley will be at least as hard, but all lessons learned about cup-tie rugby will give Donaghadee an excellent chance at a semi-final. This team is too good to be in the quarter-finals of two Ulster cups and lose both of them.
The Donaghadee team was: Billy Allen, Andrew Findlater, Stephen Marshall, Bobby Harpur, Rory Garnham, Paul Blewitt, Jonny Phillips; Chris Schofield, Gareth Gordon, Chris Good (C), Kyle Morrow, Davy Thompson, Richard Millar, Chris Hamilton and Richard Martindale. Replacements: Paul Hamilton, Paddy Quinn.